What is Imposter Syndrome, and What Can You Do About It?

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Some of the most capable, intelligent, hardworking people you know might be suffering from a debilitating phenomenon—a distortion of thinking that makes them believe they're actually incompetent, unintelligent, and lazy. They're convinced they're faking their way through their accomplishments, and one day, they'll be found out—exposed as the frauds they believe themselves to be.

It's called imposter syndrome. Those who struggle with it "maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” as it was first described in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that focused on high-achieving women. 

WHAT ARE ITS SYMPTOMS?

In the nearly 40 years since the syndrome was first identified, it has persisted in many successful people in a range of fields. (Maya Angelou: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'")

The most common symptoms are negative self-talk; a need to constantly check and re-check work; shying away from attention in the workplace; and forms of overcompensation like staying late at work or not setting appropriate boundaries around workload. Internally, people struggling with the syndrome experience persistent feelings of self-doubt and fear being found out as phony. They over-internalize and blame themselves for failures, even when other factors played a role.

“Those struggling with imposter syndrome also tend to attribute success to luck rather than merit and hard work, and also generally tend to minimize success," Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan psychologist, tells mental_floss.

From the beginning, imposter syndrome has been primarily associated with women. “We’re still living in a culture which displays varying degrees of misogynistic attitudes, and those attitudes are definitely displayed in the workplace,” says Katherine Schafler, a private psychotherapist in New York City. “When women internalize these attitudes, it dents their professional self-esteem and widens the gap that imposter syndrome slips right through.”

But misogyny isn't the only cultural factor at play, and women aren't the only people affected; many men are too. Cilona says the “obsession with success, achievement, money, and celebrity that pervades American culture” likely exacerbates imposter syndrome. “When these kinds of values are glamorized and exalted, the importance of having—or not having—them can really be intensified,” he notes.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

Naturally, therapy is recommended for people who really struggle with the syndrome and fear it is holding them back. Cilona recommends cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which focuses on “identifying and correcting faulty thinking and belief patterns like identifying negative thoughts and reality-checking beliefs.”

Schafler also recommends talking with trusted friends or professional colleagues. “If you can find a mentor in your field who understands the unique demands of your job, that might be even better," she says. "Imposter syndrome thrives on isolation.”

Finding the right workplace culture is also key, notes Schafler, who works with many high-performing professionals employed by what she calls “some of the most competitive, top-tier companies in the nation." (She also works for Google once a week.) The professional timbre of a place can either feed into, or help assuage, imposter syndrome, she says: “Any culture that doesn’t normalize the anxiety and identity challenges of beginning a new career or working in a high-pressure job will be a breeding ground for imposter syndrome."

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February 20, 2016 - 10:00pm
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